Who the heck builds a restaurant on a little island in the middle of an intersection, the intersection being Centinela, La Tijera and La Cienega, with Inglewood to the east, LAX to the west, and Fox Hills still full of skunks, rabbits and gophers? It is 1958; the hamburger, Sputnik, Googie and Palos Verdes stone are all the rage; and the San Diego Freeway is sliding through the birth canal, fast. The location is perfect, the drive-by traffic great, and the freestanding place on the island is called Pann’s, for founder George’s Greek family name, Panagopoulos. Designed by Armet & Davis with a pitched roof and walls of glass, it’s a spaceship surrounded by tropical foliage. “Mack the Knife” blasts from the juke box; waitresses wear saddle shoes and poodle skirts. The menu lists some 100 items — eggs, veal, steaks, fish and chips, oven-baked macaroni and cheese for 65 cents. The split-pea soup is made fresh daily; the cherry pie is always sweet. The parking lot fills with Buicks and Fords. Passersby slow their cars down along Centinela for a look. “The Dreamburger is good,” they tell their friends. “So are the onion rings.” Of course, George and wife Rena pour a very nice cup of coffee and chat the patrons up. Their son Jimmy stands on a milk crate to work the soda fountain, to make the chocolate shakes served from an icy silver “can.” Pleasantville it is. “Come back,” George and Rena always say. And the customers do. Even Marilyn Monroe.
My mother first ordered Pann’s chili and spaghetti sometime around ’63, and sure enough, she still orders it, even though it no longer appears on the menu. “Can you give me lots of chopped onions?” she always asks. The plate arrives today — as it did back then — full of noodles topped with steaming red chili and beans. She takes her fork and swirls it around, mixing it well before she covers the entire plate with onions. It is a curious thing about my mother, who could have gotten herself hooked on Chasen’s chili or on Lawry’s prime rib. But she preferred Pann’s for its anti-snob appeal, and when my father was on call with somebody’s broken hip, she’d load us four kids into the silver Imperial — even let us order what we wanted, within reason. Two of us had to share a chocolate shake. I’m the oldest, I got the “can.” Rena would pour my mother coffee, ask about the family. Happy we were most certainly not, but the bright-red booths were so cozy and the fried chicken so crispy that, for that moment, the only thing that mattered was Mom needed more onions.
These days Pann’s menu offers grits, turkey burgers, blackened halibut, enchiladas, chicken-fried steak too — something for everybody in the changed neighborhood. Jimmy, now the boss, listens to his customers, just like his parents did 40 years ago. Perhaps that’s why Pann’s is still here, serving 1,000 meals each day. Rena still pours a bottomless cup of coffee and chats with my mother, who tells her stories that make them both cry. Located smack in the middle of one dreadful intersection, Pann’s is really a beautiful little island of common ground. 6710 La Tijera Blvd.; (310) 670-1441.